LINTHICUM – You’re not the only one watching the road when you drive in Maryland.
In a darkened room in the basement of a State Highway Administration building, traffic officials keep an eye on state highways through an elaborate network of modern technology.
Eighteen television screens, arranged like the monitor wall at the NASA Space Flight Center in Houston, dot a 20-foot wall in the Statewide Operation Center.
Each screen shows the rhythmic movement of cars. Every few seconds, the scene changes — from traffic moving south on I-270 in Rockville to I-495, over to the Baltimore Beltway and instantly west of I-70 near Frederick.
“We can see incidents just after they happen, so we can dispatch crews out there to get the accident cleaned up,” said Chuck Brown, highway administration spokesman. “If we find out a highway’s average speed is slowing down, we can swing around the camera to find out what the problem is.”
The cameras are only part of Maryland’s network for watching the flow of traffic. The Chesapake Highway Advisory Routing Traffic, or CHART, incorporates a series of weather gauges and speed monitors along with cameras separate sites along the highways.
The system can help traffic engineers track average speeds, Brown said. A computer map of the area’s highway system is constantly updated by color-coded routes, which tell how fast drivers are moving within five miles per hour.
Just after noon on a recent Friday, there were no major tie- ups on Maryland roads. The map, popping up on a 10-foot wide screen, showed a tangled web of green lines.
“Everything looks like it’s free-flowing,” Brown said.
More than 15 supercomputers, through the CHART system, help keep traffic engineers informed about trouble spots. Engineers also have access to detour routes in case roads need to be closed.
And from here, engineers also control the state’s Visual Monitoring System — the electronic message boards that span freeway lanes at strategic points.
The latest innovation the highway department uses is a sensor no bigger than a hockey puck, buried a few inches in the asphalt of major Maryland interstates. They can detect the weight on the road surface, the amount of salt on the road, the rate at which cars pass and the road’s temperature, among other things.
“That’s important for us to know, especially during snowstorms,” Brown said. “We can determine if we need to go over an area again with salt or sand.”
Only a few sensors are installed now, Brown said, but the department is looking to add more and put them on bridges and other secondary roads.
None of this can alleviate some traffic jams in urban areas, however. “We’ve got to the point where we can’t build our way out of congestion,” Brown said. -30-